BY SIMON YAFFE
SONGWRITER Mathias Kom was raised in a home surrounded by songs and instruments - but he very nearly didn't pursue a musical path.
The Canadian is behind The Burning Hell, his alter-ego, which has been on the road in one form or another since 2007.
Mathias was in England last week to promote the group's sixth album, People (BB Island).
The Burning Hell will return to these shores in September and October, playing as a five-piece band with dates including the Soup Kitchen, Manchester, on September 17, and, as an acoustic duo at the View Two Gallery, in Liverpool, on October 3, Edinburgh's Electric Circus on October 6 and Glasgow's The Old Hairdressers on October 9.
Mathias said: "Touring is simultaneously rewarding and exhausting.
"But back in 2007, I was working as a teaching assistant at a university and decided to give music a shot. I gave myself a year - and never looked back."
Mathias, who specialises in the ukulele, describes The Burning Hell as folk music, but admits that they can take on different guises.
He explained: "All of our songs can be played on acoustic guitar without any amplification, so I guess that is folk.
"Sometimes, though, we take the form of a rock band and sometimes other influences, such as reggae and klezmer, creep in."
People was solely written by Mathias and inspired by the poem of the same name by his friend, Canadian poet Gabe Foreman.
He said: "Gabe's debut collection of poetry was called A Complete Encyclopaedia of Different Types of People.
"He gave it to me at the beginning of a tour three years ago.
"I was so inspired by it, I decided to write my own poems in the form of song lyrics.
"It took shape naturally and Gabe has done the album's artwork.
"We are in talks to collaborate on a book and album with more People poems and songs."
Raised in Winnipeg, Ontario and Newfoundland, Mathias' mother played the flute semi-professionally, while his father taught him to play the guitar.
The Burning Hell's band members fluctuate, but the touring line-up since 2011 has been Mathias, Ariel Sharratt (clarinet), Darren Browne (guitar), Nick Ferrio (bass) and Jake Nicoll (drums).
And, if it wasn't for touring, Mathias - whose musical influences include the Beach Boys, Jonathan Richman, Talking Heads, Velvet Underground and Willie Nelson - would never have met relatives in Belarus.
He explained: "On my dad's side, half the family came from Latvia and the other half from Belarus.
"We were performing in Belarus a couple of years ago and I kind of stumbled upon living relatives we had no idea existed.
"I had always assumed any Jews left in Belarus died during the Holocaust.
"But it turned out several of my family escaped to the Crimea, while another branch went to Poland, where they amazingly managed to survive.
"Had I not played music for a living, I would never have found them."
Mathias, together with Ariel, moved to Berlin a year ago, as the band's booking agency is based there, while their record label is in Hamburg.
Mathias is also taking a PhD in ethnomusicology in the city.
"There is a vibrant music scene here," he added. "I find Berlin and Germany a surprising place as a Jewish person - I still sometimes feel uncomfortable.
"It is a city where you cannot ignore history - it is everywhere. I try to block it out, but it is just there.
"On the other hand, there is a vibrant and fast-growing Jewish community here, so I am a bit conflicted. I don't know if I will be here for ever, though."
Mathias was not raised in a particularly religious home, although he stated his parents became more observant over the years.
The first time he visited Israel was to work with Ukuleles for Peace, a grassroots organisation based in Tel Aviv which brings together Jewish and Arab children through fun instruments.
Mathias took a mini-studio with him and spent six weeks with the kids, recording their songs for an album.
He recalled: "I found out about them and sent an email - and off I went.
"It brings these kids together on a level beyond politics and beyond the day-to-day struggles.
"Such projects are really important and are a wonderful tool and catalyst for communication."
Mathias has an enduring passion for the ukulele, but it was not originally his instrument of choice.
"I was always a guitarist," he explained. "In the early 2000s, I walked into music shop and noticed they were selling them for only $30 dollars. I thought they looked fun.
"Ukuleles are easy, very portable and you can do a lot of great songwriting with them."
Watch The Burning Hell's Amateur Rappers at http://tinyurl.com/ph7rcyh and visit www.wearetheburninghell.com